The View From Here

The Politics of Space Exploration

Written by: developer

by Leroy Chiao, Ph.D., Space Foundation Special Advisor – Human Spaceflight, and Elliot Pulham, Space Foundation Chief Executive Officer         

Humankind is poised on the launch pad of the most exciting, transformational age of space exploration since the orbiting of Sputnik started it all, back in 1957. Despite the forces that are unleashing a race to the stars unlike any we have seen, the subject of space exploration and utilization has been conspicuously absent from the U.S. presidential campaigns.

Why is this?

Space Exploration, particularly human spaceflight, has heretofore been inextricably intertwined with politics. Political/ideological competition between the United States and the Soviet Union fueled the race to put a human into space, in order to score Cold War victories by demonstrating technological superiority. The Soviets scored early and often, with several victories, including Sputnik and Yuri Gagarin’s flight. Not to be out-done, the United States declared a new finish line — saying that it would win the race to land humans on the Moon, which was accomplished in less than a decade — one of the greatest political accomplishments and engineering feats in human history.

The Soviets responded by flying the first space stations, the Salyut series. We countered with Skylab, and upped the ante significantly, developing the Space Shuttle. The Soviet Union felt compelled to develop its own shuttle, Buran — and the challenge was beyond them, driving the space program of the USSR to its knees. After just one unmanned demonstration flight of an incomplete vehicle, Buran was relegated to museums and boneyards, never to fly with a crew, never to fly again.

Since the first tentative steps toward partnership with the Apollo-Soyuz flight, and graduating to the Shuttle-Mir program and now the International Space Station (ISS), a political approach of collaboration over confrontation worked to build social, cultural and economic bridges between the super powers, surviving even the fall of the Berlin Wall and the collapse of the former Soviet Union. Cooperation between former foes continued, and still continues, although China changed the political and technical calculus in 2003, becoming only the third country in the world able to launch astronauts into space. China’s requests to join the ISS program over the years were rebuffed several times by the U.S., even though our Russian, European and Canadian partners publicly voiced at least some support for the idea. There were speculations that China’s entry into the human spaceflight club would spawn a new space race and give the U.S. program a shot in the arm.

But it didn’t happen. In fact, quite the opposite. The United States retired the Space Shuttle fleet in 2011, and has had no independent means of launching astronauts into space since. The U.S. buys seats aboard Russian spacecraft — thanks to the partnership that has withstood the collapse of the Soviet Union, the advent of the European Union, and the rise of China. This will hopefully change soon, as SpaceX and Boeing approach the first flights of their Dragon and Spaceliner spacecraft, which will carry the first commercially procured astronaut flights from U.S. soil, sometime around the end of next year.

Still, there is a bittersweet truth. Since the beginning of the Space Age there have always been only two countries capable of launching humans into space. It is still true. Tragically, the U.S. is not one of those countries.

U.S. leadership in space, quite simply, has eroded. While there is no country that can muster the overall capability in all sectors of space as remarkably as can the United States, there are any number of countries that can do some things as well, or better.

Twenty years ago, 75 percent of the world’s launch capability was manufactured in the U.S. Today, less than 25 percent is. Fifteen years ago, 75 percent of the world’s satellites were manufactured in the U.S. Today, less than 20 percent is.

Why haven’t our elected officials noticed this erosion? Or, if they do recognize it, why don’t they talk about it publicly? The answer is that we have been so used to being the leader in space, for so long, that we take it for granted. We assume, without considering the evidence, that it is still true. Why make it a political issue? Don’t worry! Be happy!

This is dangerous. While the U.S. has a vague idea of someday sending astronauts to Mars, sometime in the next 20+ years, China, Russia and Europe are planning, with firm schedules, to send their astronauts to the Moon in the next decade. Shouldn’t we, the United States, lead this effort? If not leading, shouldn’t we at least appear to be relevant?

While many positive things have been accomplished in space in the past decade, we believe that one of the most ill-considered comments to color our discussion, has been “Been there, done that,” pertaining to human lunar space exploration. Though not intended this way, it flippantly discounted a unique American accomplishment and a unique body of knowledge that the U.S. can bring to the human experience, and the great human adventure.

There are numerous technical, operational and programmatic reasons for the U.S. to go back to the Moon, as part of the effort to send astronauts to Mars. But, recognizing that politics motivate and drive all decisions, the warning klaxons should be sounding loud and clear to our politicians.

Other spacefaring nations will go to the Moon, with or without us. There aren’t just two space nations playing anymore, there are dozens. If we don’t lead that effort, another nation or nations will. This is important, as it partially reflects our overall position in the world. Losing that position would be a blow to our international prestige. We worked hard as a nation to achieve and to maintain leadership in space. It would be more than a shame to simply let it slip away.

This article is part of Space Watch: May 2016 (Volume: 15, Issue: 5).